Michael NYMAN (b.1944)
String Quartet No.1 (1985) [25:44]
String Quartet No.2 (1988) [21:32]
String Quartet No.3 (1990) [15:52]
Balanescu Quartet
rec. November 1990, Church Studios, Crouch End, London
MN RECORDS MNRCD 124 [63:15]
This reissue is part of Michael Nyman’s MN Records label which has released over two dozen discs devoted to the composer’s music. The three quartets were recorded back in 1990 by the Balanescu Quartet on Argo and make a welcome appearance in this gatefold-styled release, the second volume in the Nyman Chamber Music sub-series.
The First Quartet was written in 1985 and moves deftly and brilliantly through twelve brief sections. Nyman uses quotations from Schoenberg’s Second Quartet and from the music of John Bull in a variation flow of invention, with each section employing the name of each composer, and Nyman’s own name, until Bull ‘meets’ Schoenberg in the penultimate section and Nyman rounds things off. This clever work both scrutinises Bull, not least in his popular vein, ensuring a continuum between his keyboard music and Schoenberg’s epochal quartet. The ‘conflicting sources’ thus generate a terrific work. The music is, in performance, rather than theory, full of vitality and energising currents, free flowing into and between time and space. Nyman even courts Bull’s popular music and uses it to infiltrate Unchained Melody, the ultimate pop song, into the John Bull 5 section.
Three years later he wrote his Second Quartet which is rooted in the music of dance. Its rhythmic basis is Indian music though it doesn’t sound, and makes no attempt to sound, Indian. Its shifting patterns sometimes sound a touch Reich-like, but its contrasts and energy are reason enough to admire its infectious drama. Movements three, a lovely song, and six, which is a typically exciting Nymanesque one, are the most approachable and enjoyable. The Third Quartet was written in 1990 and is a ‘transcription’ by the composer of his 1989 choral work Out of the Ruins, which he wrote for a BBC TV documentary on the subject of the December 1988 Armenian earthquake. This expressive canvas opens slowly, and then speeds up before reaching a passionate intensity that is both powerful and moving. It’s the most overtly emotive of the three quartets, because its subject matter merits the weight of expressive detail.
Like all the quartets it receives a reading of structural and rhythmic lucidity and tonal breadth from the Balanescu Quartet, whose first violinist Alexander Balanescu had originally suggested turning the TV music into a string quartet.
Jonathan Woolf
Readings of structural and rhythmic lucidity and tonal breadth. 

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